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Literary vs. Literacy: What's the Difference?

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How does literacy impact society, are literary skills important, can someone be literate but not literary, what does literary mean, is there a link between literacy rates and economic development, how is digital literacy related to traditional literacy, are literary skills innate or learned, can literacy exist without literature, is literary study only about reading books, do literary works always follow standard grammar rules, how do literary genres differ, can literacy help in understanding literary texts better, are literary festivals beneficial for writers, how can one improve literacy skills, what role does literacy play in democracy, what's the role of literary criticism, is literary analysis subjective, what's the impact of literacy on personal development, how does one become a literary scholar.

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Difference Between Literacy & Literature

Gil Tillard

Literacy vs Literature

Understanding the difference between literacy and literature is beneficial, as people often mix up the terms and assume they are interrelated. While it is true that they have a connection, it is not what most people assume. Literacy can be defined as the ability to read and write a language to a certain extent, whereas literature consists of artistic works in various genres of a specific language. Gaining a certain level of literacy is essential for understanding literature. This article aims to highlight the difference between literacy and literature while providing a basic understanding of both terms.

Key Takeaways

  • Literacy refers to the ability to read and write a certain language, and it is an indicator of a person’s understanding of that language.
  • Literature includes all written works of art in a language, belonging to various genres such as poetry, drama, novels, and short stories.
  • While literacy is a basic requirement for understanding a language, literature requires a higher level of skill and goes beyond colloquial language.

What is Literacy?

Literacy refers to an individual’s ability to read and write a particular language. It can be considered as an indicator of a person’s understanding of that language. In today’s world, literacy is used as an indicator for various indexes that measure human development. Most countries believe that having a high level of literacy among their citizens is crucial, as it ensures a capable labor force. Statistics show that the literacy rate in developing countries is lower than in developed countries. As a result, developing countries have introduced numerous educational reforms and legal frameworks to increase their populations’ literacy rates. This demonstrates that literacy is more of a basic requirement that allows a person to gain a certain level of understanding of a language.

What is Literature?

Literature encompasses all written works of a language, which can belong to various genres such as poetry, drama, novels, and short stories. These works of art go beyond ordinary language and conversations. To understand literature, an individual needs more skill than just literacy. Literature is mainly divided into two categories: prose and poetry. Dramas, novels, and short stories fall under prose, while melodious and rhythmic works of art are classified as poetry. In English literature, the collection of works is vast, so it has been divided into different periods for easier study, such as the Augustan period, Victorian period, Romantic period, and Medieval period. This overview of the two terms shows that literature and literacy are quite distinct, with literacy serving as a stepping stone towards understanding literature.

What is the difference between Literacy and Literature?

  • Literacy refers to an individual’s ability to read and write a language to a considerable extent and is considered an indicator for the human development index.
  • The literacy rate in developing countries is lower compared to most developed countries.
  • Literature refers to written works of art of a language, which can be either prose or poetry and fall under different genres.
  • To understand literature, a person needs a higher level of skill that goes beyond colloquial language.
  • Literacy can be considered more of an initial step towards understanding literature.

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difference literature from literacy

Literacy is More than Just Reading and Writing

NCTE 03.23.20 Diversity

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Amber Peterson, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“History is written by the victors.” —Unknown

As committee members, we regularly wrestle with pinning down a comprehensive definition of literacy. The common definition, “the ability to read and write,” gets increasingly complex upon closer examination. What does mastery of reading and writing look like? How do we measure it? How do we weigh digital and technological proficiency? Where does numeracy come in? How do the values of our communities and cultural practices come into play? sWhen measuring literacy, which languages and dialects count and which do not?

Despite the complexity, literacy is the global metric we use to assess the health and competence of communities. High literacy rates have been found to correlate to everything from better access to economic opportunity, to better nutrition, to environmental sustainability.

In fact, bolstering global literacy underpins all of UNESCO’s 2030 Sustainability Goals, acknowledging the fact that ideals like gender equality, sustainable infrastructure, and eradicating poverty and hunger are not possible without literate populations. Correspondingly, UNESCO’s hefty definition of literacy is “a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.” (UNESCO)

This focus on literacy as a tool for meaningful engagement with society makes sense. As our population expands and technology breaks down ever more barriers between us, the ability to communicate and interact with those around us becomes even more important. In our consideration of literacy, however, it is impossible to ignore the myriad ways that imperialist and colonialist systems shape gender and regional disparities in access.

Many historians propose that written language emerged at least in part as a tool for maintaining power. One’s class status dictated one’s access to literacy education, and often those without power were prohibited from learning to read and write at all. Colonialism, imperialism, and the sprawl of anglo-european, male-centered ideology from the 15th Century onward have created global power structures that still dominate today.

When considered from that perspective, it is no surprise that women make up two thirds of the world’s illiterate population, and that sub-Saharan Africa, the region arguably hit hardest by many of those inequitable power structures, has some of the lowest literacy levels in the world.

While our focus must and should be on providing everyone everywhere with the tools to “identify, understand, interpret, create, and communicate in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich, and fast changing world,” those persistent inequitable power structures dictate that progress will always be lopsided and slow.

As we slog onward, perhaps we also need to examine and consider more closely the world and experience of the “illiterate” as well. Only relatively recently has literacy been expected or even possible for the vast majority of society. For centuries, people have lived, laughed, traded, communicated, and survived without being able to read and write. Even today, though illiteracy can be a literal death sentence (studies have shown that female literacy rates can actually be a predictor of child mortality rates (Saurabh et al)), it is most certainly a metaphorical one wherein the experiences had and contributions made by those so afflicted are devalued both by design and by conceit.

We doom entire cultures and erase the experiences of entire populations by embracing the superiority of those who are literate, but illiteracy doesn’t mean ignorance. We can and should learn from everyone and we must provide other avenues to global citizenship for those who can’t read and write.

So what does this mean for our definition of literacy? At its simplest, literacy is the way that we interact with the world around us, how we shape it and are shaped by it. It is how we communicate with others via reading and writing, but also by speaking, listening, and creating. It is how we articulate our experience in the world and declare, “We Are Here!”

In my work as the director of program innovation for LitWorld, I get to interact with young people all over the world and examine the idea of literacy from many different angles. Resources for literacy education differ dramatically from one place to another, as do metric taking procedures and general best practices.

What does not change is the inherent drive for people to express themselves, to learn, and to grow. I see the enthusiasm with which young people jump at the chance to share stories of themselves and of the world, to be listened to and to absorb. I also see firsthand the devastating effect of being told that your story, your community, and your culture do not matter. I have witnessed the loss of confidence, the dwindling self-esteem, and the cycle of hopelessness that comes with the silencing of voices.

It is our charge as educators and as global citizens to embrace literacy in ALL of its forms.

5 Suggestions for Embracing Literacy for Global Citizenship in the Classroom

  • Focus on students’ own stories . Find ways to center their experiences and lean in to opportunities to share them both informally and formally.
  • Embrace ALL of the languages your students speak. Being multilingual is an asset, not a deficit! Many of our students are multilingual in ways we never acknowledge. Mastery of formal and standardized language structures is an important tool that every student deserves access to, but life often happens outside of and around those structures. Those everyday interactions are important, valuable, and valid as well.
  • Provide regular access to diverse stories, images, experiences, and perspectives. The world is enormous and that diversity is beautiful. Help your students to see it as such. Providing access to underrepresented narratives and accounts helps to decolonize your classroom and normalize embracing the unfamiliar.
  • Place value on reading, writing, speaking, listening, and creating in your students’ work. Ensure that reading and writing are not the only ways in which students are acknowledged and celebrated for taking in ideas, expressing their thoughts, or demonstrating understanding. Encouraging multiple modes of expression not only provides more opportunities for students to explore and display their own intelligence, it also primes them to seek information, inspiration, and knowledge from diverse sources.
  • Read aloud together, and often . Reading aloud is effective across grade levels, despite the fact that this critical practice usually stops in elementary school. Reading aloud can provide access to content that students might not be able to access on their own. It is also a way of creating community and building a shared experience as a whole class.

The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

Literacy. (2018, March 19). Retrieved March 2, 2020, from https://en.unesco.org/themes/literacy

Saurabh, S., Sarkar, S., & Pandey, D. K. (2013). Female Literacy Rate is a Better Predictor of Birth Rate and Infant Mortality Rate in India. Retrieved March 2, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4649870/

The Sustainable Development Agenda—United Nations Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2020, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/

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Literature and Literacy

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Literature is any body of written works and typically refers to writing considered to be an art form or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage.


Thumbnail: Old book bindings at the Merton College library. (CC BY-SA 3.0; Tom Murphy VII )

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Chapter 1. What is Literacy? Multiple Perspectives on Literacy

Constance Beecher

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass

Download Tar Beach – Faith Ringgold Video Transcript [DOC]

Keywords: literacy, digital literacy, critical literacy, community-based literacies

Definitions of literacy from multiple perspectives

Literacy is the cornerstone of education by any definition. Literacy refers to the ability of people to read and write (UNESCO, 2017). Reading and writing in turn are about encoding and decoding information between written symbols and sound (Resnick, 1983; Tyner, 1998). More specifically, literacy is the ability to understand the relationship between sounds and written words such that one may read, say, and understand them (UNESCO, 2004; Vlieghe, 2015). About 67 percent of children nationwide, and more than 80 percent of those from families with low incomes, are not proficient readers by the end of third grade ( The Nation Assessment for Educational Progress; NAEP 2022 ).  Children who are not reading on grade level by third grade are 4 times more likely to drop out of school than their peers who are reading on grade level. A large body of research clearly demonstrates that Americans with fewer years of education have poorer health and shorter lives. In fact, since the 1990s, life expectancy has fallen for people without a high school education. Completing more years of education creates better access to health insurance, medical care, and the resources for living a healthier life (Saha, 2006). Americans with less education face higher rates of illness, higher rates of disability, and shorter life expectancies. In the U.S., 25-year-olds without a high school diploma can expect to die 9 years sooner than college graduates. For example, by 2011, the prevalence of diabetes had reached 15% for adults without a high -school education, compared with 7% for college graduates (Zimmerman et al., 2018).

Thus, literacy is a goal of utmost importance to society. But what does it mean to be literate, or to be able to read? What counts as literacy?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe two or more definitions of literacy and the differences between them.
  • Define digital and critical literacy.
  • Distinguish between digital literacy, critical literacy, and community-based literacies.
  • Explain multiple perspectives on literacy.

Here are some definitions to consider:

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.” – United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

“The ability to understand, use, and respond appropriately to written texts.” – National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), citing the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)

“An individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, compute, and solve problems, at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” – Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), Section 203

“The ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.” – Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), as cited by the American Library Association’s Committee on Literacy

“Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” – Kutner, Greenberg, Jin, Boyle, Hsu, & Dunleavy (2007). Literacy in Everyday Life: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2007-480)

Which one of these above definitions resonates with you? Why?

New literacy practices as meaning-making practices

In the 21 st century, literacy increasingly includes understanding the roles of digital media and technology in literacy. In 1996, the New London Group coined the term “multiliteracies” or “new literacies” to describe a modern view of literacy that reflected multiple communication forms and contexts of cultural and linguistic diversity within a globalized society. They defined multiliteracies as a combination of multiple ways of communicating and making meaning, including such modes as visual, audio, spatial, behavioral, and gestural (New London Group, 1996). Most of the text’s students come across today are digital (like this textbook!). Instead of books and magazines, students are reading blogs and text messages.

For a short video on the importance of digital literacy, watch The New Media Literacies .

The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE, 2019) makes it clear that our definitions of literacy must continue to evolve and grow ( NCTE definition of digital literacy ).

“Literacy has always been a collection of communicative and sociocultural practices shared among communities. As society and technology change, so does literacy. The world demands that a literate person possess and intentionally apply a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions. These literacies are interconnected, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with histories, narratives, life possibilities, and social trajectories of all individuals and groups. Active, successful participants in a global society must be able to:

  • participate effectively and critically in a networked world.
  • explore and engage critically and thoughtfully across a wide variety of inclusive texts and tools/modalities.
  • consume, curate, and create actively across contexts.
  • advocate for equitable access to and accessibility of texts, tools, and information.
  • build and sustain intentional global and cross-cultural connections and relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought.
  • promote culturally sustaining communication and recognize the bias and privilege present in the interactions.
  • examine the rights, responsibilities, and ethical implications of the use and creation of information.
  • determine how and to what extent texts and tools amplify one’s own and others’ narratives as well as counterproductive narratives.
  • recognize and honor the multilingual literacy identities and culture experiences individuals bring to learning environments, and provide opportunities to promote, amplify, and encourage these variations of language (e.g., dialect, jargon, and register).”

In other words, literacy is not just the ability to read and write. It is also being able to effectively use digital technology to find and analyze information. Students who are digitally literate know how to do research, find reliable sources, and make judgments about what they read online and in print. Next, we will learn more about digital literacy.

  • Malleable : can be changed.
  • Culturally sustaining : the pedagogical preservation of the cultural and linguistic competence of young people pertaining to their communities of origin while simultaneously affording dominant-culture competence.
  • Bias : a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others, usually resulting in unfair treatment.
  • Privilege : a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.
  • Unproductive narrative : negative commonly held beliefs such as “all students from low-income backgrounds will struggle in school.” (Narratives are phrases or ideas that are repeated over and over and become “shared narratives.” You can spot them in common expressions and stories that almost everyone knows and holds as ingrained values or beliefs.)

Literacy in the digital age

The Iowa Core recognizes that today, literacy includes technology. The goal for students who graduate from the public education system in Iowa is:

“Each Iowa student will be empowered with the technological knowledge and skills to learn effectively and live productively. This vision, developed by the Iowa Core 21st Century Skills Committee, reflects the fact that Iowans in the 21st century live in a global environment marked by a high use of technology, giving citizens and workers the ability to collaborate and make individual contributions as never before. Iowa’s students live in a media-suffused environment, marked by access to an abundance of information and rapidly changing technological tools useful for critical thinking and problem-solving processes. Therefore, technological literacy supports preparation of students as global citizens capable of self-directed learning in preparation for an ever-changing world” (Iowa Core Standards 21 st Century Skills, n.d.).

NOTE: The essential concepts and skills of technology literacy are taken from the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Educational Technology Standards for Students: Grades K-2 | Technology Literacy Standards

Literacy in any context is defined as the ability “ to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society” (ICT Literacy Panel, 2002). “ When we teach only for facts (specifics)… rather than for how to go beyond facts, we teach students how to get out of date ” (Sternberg, 2008). This statement is particularly significant when applied to technology literacy. The Iowa essential concepts for technology literacy reflect broad, universal processes and skills.

Unlike the previous generations, learning in the digital age is marked using rapidly evolving technology, a deluge of information, and a highly networked global community (Dede, 2010). In such a dynamic environment, learners need skills beyond the basic cognitive ability to consume and process language. To understand the characteristics of the digital age, and what this means for how people learn in this new and changing landscape, one may turn to the evolving discussion of literacy or, as one might say now, of digital literacy. The history of literacy contextualizes digital literacy and illustrates changes in literacy over time. By looking at literacy as an evolving historical phenomenon, we can glean the fundamental characteristics of the digital age. These characteristics in turn illuminate the skills needed to take advantage of digital environments. The following discussion is an overview of digital literacy, its essential components, and why it is important for learning in the digital age.

Literacy is often considered a skill or competency. Children and adults alike can spend years developing the appropriate skills for encoding and decoding information. Over the course of thousands of years, literacy has become much more common and widespread, with a global literacy rate ranging from 81% to 90% depending on age and gender (UNESCO, 2016). From a time when literacy was the domain of an elite few, it has grown to include huge swaths of the global population. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are some of the advantages the written word can provide. Kaestle (1985) tells us that “literacy makes it possible to preserve information as a snapshot in time, allows for recording, tracking and remembering information, and sharing information more easily across distances among others” (p. 16). In short, literacy led “to the replacement of myth by history and the replacement of magic by skepticism and science.”

If literacy involves the skills of reading and writing, digital literacy requires the ability to extend those skills to effectively take advantage of the digital world (American Library Association [ALA], 2013). More general definitions express digital literacy as the ability to read and understand information from digital sources as well as to create information in various digital formats (Bawden, 2008; Gilster, 1997; Tyner, 1998; UNESCO, 2004). Developing digital skills allows digital learners to manage a vast array of rapidly changing information and is key to both learning and working in the evolving digital landscape (Dede, 2010; Koltay, 2011; Mohammadyari & Singh, 2015). As such, it is important for people to develop certain competencies specifically for handling digital content.

ALA Digital Literacy Framework

To fully understand the many digital literacies, we will look at the American Library Association (ALA) framework. The ALA framework is laid out in terms of basic functions with enough specificity to make it easy to understand and remember but broad enough to cover a wide range of skills. The ALA framework includes the following areas:

  • understanding,
  • evaluating,
  • creating, and
  • communicating (American Library Association, 2013).

Finding information in a digital environment represents a significant departure from the way human beings have searched for information for centuries. The learner must abandon older linear or sequential approaches to finding information such as reading a book, using a card catalog, index, or table of contents, and instead use more horizontal approaches like natural language searches, hypermedia text, keywords, search engines, online databases and so on (Dede, 2010; Eshet, 2002). The shift involves developing the ability to create meaningful search limits (SCONUL, 2016). Previously, finding the information would have meant simply looking up page numbers based on an index or sorting through a card catalog. Although finding information may depend to some degree on the search tool being used (library, internet search engine, online database, etc.) the search results also depend on how well a person is able to generate appropriate keywords and construct useful Boolean searches. Failure in these two areas could easily return too many results to be helpful, vague, or generic results, or potentially no useful results at all (Hangen, 2015).

Part of the challenge of finding information is the ability to manage the results. Because there is so much data, changing so quickly, in so many different formats, it can be challenging to organize and store them in such a way as to be useful. SCONUL (2016) talks about this as the ability to organize, store, manage, and cite digital resources, while the Educational Testing Service also specifically mentions the skills of accessing and managing information. Some ways to accomplish these tasks is using social bookmarking tools such as Diigo, clipping and organizing software such as Evernote and OneNote, and bibliographic software. Many sites, such as YouTube, allow individuals with an account to bookmark videos, as well as create channels or collections of videos for specific topics or uses. Other websites have similar features.


Understanding in the context of digital literacy perhaps most closely resembles traditional literacy because it is the ability to read and interpret text (Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006). In the digital age, however, the ability to read and understand extends much further than text alone. For example, searches may return results with any combination of text, video, sound, and audio, as well as still and moving pictures. As the internet has evolved, a whole host of visual languages have also evolved, such as moving images, emoticons, icons, data visualizations, videos, and combinations of all the above. Lankshear & Knoble (2008) refer to these modes of communication as “post typographic textual practice.” Understanding the variety of modes of digital material may also be referred to as multimedia literacy (Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006), visual literacy (Tyner, 1998), or digital literacy (Buckingham, 2006).

Evaluating digital media requires competencies ranging from assessing the importance of a piece of information to determining its accuracy and source. Evaluating information is not new to the digital age, but the nature of digital information can make it more difficult to understand who the source of information is and whether it can be trusted (Jenkins, 2018). When there are abundant and rapidly changing data across heavily populated networks, anyone with access can generate information online. This results in the learner needing to make decisions about its authenticity, trustworthiness, relevance, and significance. Learning evaluative digital skills means learning to ask questions about who is writing the information, why they are writing it, and who the intended audience is (Buckingham, 2006). Developing critical thinking skills is part of the literacy of evaluating and assessing the suitability for use of a specific piece of information (SCONUL, 2016).

Creating in the digital world makes the production of knowledge and ideas in digital formats explicit. While writing is a critical component of traditional literacy, it is not the only creative tool in the digital toolbox. Other tools are available and include creative activities such as podcasting, making audio-visual presentations, building data visualizations, 3D printing, and writing blogs. Tools that haven’t been thought of before are constantly appearing. In short, a digitally literate individual will want to be able to use all formats in which digital information may be conveyed in the creation of a product. A key component of creating with digital tools is understanding what constitutes fair use and what is considered plagiarism. While this is not new to the digital age, it may be more challenging these days to find the line between copying and extending someone else’s work.

In part, the reason for the increased difficulty in discerning between plagiarism and new work is the “cut and paste culture” of the Internet, referred to as “reproduction literacy” (Eshet 2002, p.4), or appropriation in Jenkins’ New Media Literacies (Jenkins, 2018). The question is, what kind and how much change is required to avoid the accusation of plagiarism? This skill requires the ability to think critically, evaluate a work, and make appropriate decisions. There are tools and information to help understand and find those answers, such as the Creative Commons. Learning about such resources and how to use them is part of digital literacy.


Communicating is the final category of digital skills in the ALA digital framework. The capacity to connect with individuals all over the world creates unique opportunities for learning and sharing information, for which developing digital communication skills is vital. Some of the skills required for communicating in the digital environment include digital citizenship, collaboration, and cultural awareness. This is not to say that one does not need to develop communication skills outside of the digital environment, but that the skills required for digital communication go beyond what is required in a non-digital environment. Most of us are adept at personal, face- to-face communication, but digital communication needs the ability to engage in asynchronous environments such as email, online forums, blogs, social media, and learning platforms where what is written may not be deleted and may be misinterpreted. Add that to an environment where people number in the millions and the opportunities for misunderstanding and cultural miscues are likely.

The communication category of digital literacies covers an extensive array of skills above and beyond what one might need for face-to-face interactions. It is comprised of competencies around ethical and moral behavior, responsible communication for engagement in social and civic activities (Adam Becker et al., 2017), an awareness of audience, and an ability to evaluate the potential impact of one’s online actions. It also includes skills for handling privacy and security in online environments. These activities fall into two main categories: digital citizenship and collaboration.

Digital citizenship refers to one’s ability to interact effectively in the digital world. Part of this skill is good manners, often referred to as “netiquette.” There is a level of context which is often missing in digital communication due to physical distance, lack of personal familiarity with the people online, and the sheer volume of the people who may encounter our words. People who know us well may understand exactly what we mean when we say something sarcastic or ironic, but people online do not know us, and vocal and facial cues are missing in most digital communication, making it more likely we will be misunderstood. Furthermore, we are more likely to misunderstand or be misunderstood if we are unaware of cultural differences. So, digital citizenship includes an awareness of who we are, what we intend to say, and how it might be perceived by other people we do not know (Buckingham, 2006). It is also a process of learning to communicate clearly in ways that help others understand what we mean.

Another key digital skill is collaboration, and it is essential for effective participation in digital projects via the Internet. The Internet allows people to engage with others they may never see in person and work towards common goals, be they social, civic, or business oriented. Creating a community and working together requires a degree of trust and familiarity that can be difficult to build when there is physical distance between the participants. Greater effort must be made to be inclusive , and to overcome perceived or actual distance and disconnectedness. So, while the potential of digital technology for connecting people is impressive, it is not automatic or effortless, and it requires new skills.

Literacy narratives are stories about reading or composing a message in any form or context. They often include poignant memories that involve a personal experience with literacy. Digital literacy narratives can sometimes be categorized as ones that focus on how the writer came to understand the importance of technology in their life or pedagogy. More often, they are simply narratives that use a medium beyond the print-based essay to tell the story:

Create your own literacy narrative that tells of a significant experience you had with digital literacy. Use a multi-modal tool that includes audio and images or video. Share it with your classmates and discuss the most important ideas you notice in each other’s narratives.

Critical literacy

Literacy scholars recognize that although literacy is a cognitive skill, it is also a set of practices that communities and people participate in. Next, we turn to another perspective on literacy – critical literacy. “Critical” here is not meant as having a negative point of view, but rather using an analytic lens that detects power, privilege, and representation to understand different ways of looking at texts. For example, when groups or individuals stage a protest, do the media refer to them as “protesters” or “rioters?” What is the reason for choosing the label they do, and what are the consequences? 

Critical literacy does not have a set definition or typical history of use, but the following key tenets have been described in the literature, which will vary in their application based on the individual social context (Vasquez, 2019). Table 1 presents some key aspects of critical literacy, but this area of literacy research is growing and evolving rapidly, so this is not an exhaustive list.

An important component of critical literacy is the adoption of culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy. One definition comes from Dr. Django Paris (2012), who stated that Culturally Responsive-Sustaining (CR-S) education recognizes that cultural differences (including racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexuality, and ability ones) should be treated as assets for teaching and learning. Culturally sustaining pedagogy requires teachers to support multilingualism and multiculturalism in their practice. That is, culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literary, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.

For more, see the Culturally Responsive and Sustaining F ramework . The framework helps educators to think about how to create student-centered learning environments that uphold racial, linguistic, and cultural identities. It prepares students for rigorous independent learning, develops their abilities to connect across lines of difference, elevates historically marginalized voices, and empowers them as agents of social change. CR-S education explores the relationships between historical and contemporary conditions of inequality and the ideas that shape access, participation, and outcomes for learners.

  • What can you do to learn more about your students’ cultures?
  • How can you build and sustain relationships with your students?
  • How do the instructional materials you use affirm your students’ identities?

Community-based literacies

You may have noticed that communities are a big part of critical literacy – we understand that our environment and culture impact what we read and how we understand the world. Now think about the possible differences among three Iowa communities: a neighborhood in the middle of Des Moines, the rural community of New Hartford, and Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City:

difference literature from literacy

You may not have thought about how living in a certain community might contribute to or take away from a child’s ability to learn to read. Dr. Susan Neuman (2001) did. She and her team investigated the differences between two neighborhoods regarding how much access to books and other reading materials children in those neighborhoods had. One middle-to-upper class neighborhood in Philadelphia had large bookstores, toy stores with educational materials, and well-resourced libraries. The other, a low-income neighborhood, had no bookstores or toy stores. There was a library, but it had fewer resources and served a larger number of patrons. In fact, the team found that even the signs on the businesses were harder to read, and there was less environmental printed word. Their findings showed that each child in the middle-class neighborhood had 13 books on average, while in the lower-class neighborhood there was one book per 300 children .

Dr. Neuman and her team (2019) recently revisited this question. This time, they looked at low-income neighborhoods – those where 60% or more of the people are living in poverty . They compared these to borderline neighborhoods – those with 20-40% in poverty – in three cities, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles. Again, they found significantly fewer books in the very low-income areas. The chart represents the preschool books available for sale in each neighborhood. Note that in the lower-income neighborhood of Washington D.C., there were no books for young children to be found at all!

Now watch this video from Campaign for Grade Level Reading. Access to books is one way that children can have new experiences, but it is not the only way!

What is the “summer slide,” and how does it contribute to the differences in children’s reading abilities?

The importance of being literate and how to get there

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope” – Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General.

An older black man with a goatee speaks at a podium for the United Nations in a suit.

Our economy is enhanced when citizens have higher literacy levels. Effective literacy skills open the doors to more educational and employment opportunities so that people can lift themselves out of poverty and chronic underemployment. In our increasingly complex and rapidly changing technological world, it is essential that individuals continuously expand their knowledge and learn new skills to keep up with the pace of change. The goal of our public school system in the United States is to “ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.” This is the basis of the Common Core Standards, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). These groups felt that education was too inconsistent across the different states, and today’s students are preparing to enter a world in which colleges and businesses are demanding more than ever before. To ensure that all students are ready for success after high school, the Common Core State Standards established clear universal guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade: “The Common Core State Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do help teachers figure out the knowledge and skills their students should have” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012).

Explore the Core!

Go to iowacore.gov and click on Literacy Standards. Spend some time looking at the K-3 standards. Notice how consistent they are across the grade levels. Each has specific requirements within the categories:

  • Reading Standards for Literature
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • Reading Standards for Foundational Skills
  • Writing Standards
  • Speaking and Listening Standards
  • Language Standards

Download the Iowa Core K-12 Literacy Manual . You will use it as a reference when you are creating lessons.

Next, explore the Subject Area pages and resources. What tools does the state provide to teachers to support their use of the Core?

Describe a resource you found on the website. How will you use this when you are a teacher?

Watch this video about the Iowa Literacy Core Standards:

  • Literacy is typically defined as the ability to ingest, understand, and communicate information.
  • Literacy has multiple definitions, each with a different point of focus.
  • “New literacies,” or multiliteracies, are a combination of multiple ways of communicating and making meaning, including visual, audio, spatial, behavioral, and gestural communication.
  • As online communication has become more prevalent, digital literacy has become more important for learners to engage with the wealth of information available online.
  • Critical literacy develops learners’ critical thinking by asking them to use an analytic lens that detects power, privilege, and representation to understand different ways of looking at information.
  • The Common Core State Standards were established to set clear, universal guidelines for what every student should know after completing high school.

Resources for teacher educators

  • Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework [PDF]
  • Common Core State Standards
  • Iowa Core Instructional Resources in Literacy

Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms . New York, NY: Routledge.

Lau, S. M. C. (2012). Reconceptualizing critical literacy teaching in ESL classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 65 , 325–329.

Literacy. (2018, March 19). Retrieved March 2, 2020, from  https://en.unesco.org/themes/literacy

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2001). Access to print in low‐income and middle‐income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36 (1), 8-26.

Neuman, S. B., & Moland, N. (2019). Book deserts: The consequences of income segregation on children’s access to print.  Urban education, 54 (1), 126-147.

New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures.  Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1), 60-92.

O’Brien, J. (2001). Children reading critically: A local history. In B. Comber & A. Simpson (Eds.), Negotiating critical literacies in classrooms (pp. 41–60). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ordoñez-Jasis, R., & Ortiz, R. W. (2006). Reading their worlds: Working with diverse families to enhance children’s early literacy development. Y C Young Children, 61 (1), 42.

Saha S. (2006). Improving literacy as a means to reducing health disparities. J Gen Intern Med. 21 (8):893-895. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00546.x

UNESCO. (2017). Literacy rates continue to rise from one generation to the next global literacy trends today. Retrieved from http://on.unesco.org/literacy-map.

Vasquez, V.M., Janks, H. & Comber, B. (2019). Critical Literacy as a Way of Being and Doing. Language Arts, 96 (5), 300-311.

Vlieghe, J. (2015). Traditional and digital literacy. The literacy hypothesis, technologies of reading and writing, and the ‘grammatized’ body. Ethics and Education, 10 (2), 209-226.

Zimmerman, E. B., Woolf, S. H., Blackburn, S. M., Kimmel, A. D., Barnes, A. J., & Bono, R. S. (2018). The case for considering education and health. Urban Education, 53 (6), 744-773.U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences.

U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2022 Reading Assessment.

Methods of Teaching Early Literacy Copyright © 2023 by Constance Beecher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Ask Difference

Literary vs. Literacy — What's the Difference?

difference literature from literacy

Difference Between Literary and Literacy

Table of contents, key differences.

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Part of speech, contextual use, common associations, primary focus, compare with definitions, common curiosities, is "literary" only associated with fictional works, are there different types of literacy, how is a literary novel different from a regular novel, what is the main focus of literary studies, does literacy only mean the ability to read, can a magazine article be considered a literary piece, why is literacy important for development, is literary criticism always negative, are literacy rates a reflection of a country's education quality, how is functional literacy different from basic literacy, can a work be both literary and popular, can one be literate but not numerate, share your discovery.

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Narratives of Reading, Writing, and Other Literacies

At the naugle commlab.

  • The Naugle CommLab
  • About NARWOL

What Is a Literacy Narrative?

  • Tutor Training Toolkit

difference literature from literacy


  • Literacy – familiarity, facility, or competence with using at least one area of communication, including receptive (such as reading and listening comprehension) and productive areas of communication (such as written, spoken, and visual communicative competence). As a multimodal communication center, we interpret literacy broadly to include writing, oral communication, visual design, nonverbal communication, and other modalities.
  • Literacy Narrative – A literacy narrative is a reflective document in which a writer composes a story regarding their process and growth in developing different forms of literacy, including reading, writing, viewing, interpreting, etc. The literacy narrative does not have to define literacy generally, but rather should consist of an exploration and re-definition of literacy in the context of a single individual’s experiences . University instructors in education and other fields often assign literacy narratives in courses as a way to help prospective teachers re-examine their own experiences, lenses, beliefs, and perspectives on literacy and raise questions about what it means to be literate prior to their embarking on a career supporting and guiding students in their individual journeys toward literacy.

For more information on literacy narratives, click here .

All of the literacy narratives that will appear in this archive will respond to the same prompt:

“Write and record a story that reflects on one or more formative experiences you have had with at least one area of literacy, including speaking, listening, visual design, writing, reading, etc. Discuss the influence that the experience has had on your journey toward literacy and how it has become a linguistic resource for you. Your story should in some way convey what the notion of literacy has meant in your life and how it has equipped you with the skills needed to be a consultant and an active global citizen.

This tightly focused, reflective personal narrative should be 1000–1500 words and should be a true story written in prose. An effective personal narrative shows rather than tells (i.e. it relies on concrete details and avoids abstraction) the reader the significance of the experience. Research is not required. Your literacy narrative should adhere to current MLA formatting guidelines.”

The author of a narrative must appeal to the needs and values of their audiences by tailoring their narrative to address those needs within the conventions of the document. This is not a journal entry, but rather a personal narrative describing specific aspects of an individual’s development as a communicator and creating connections between their experiences and the work they do in the center.

These literacy narratives are published in three ways to promote accessibility and dissemination: 1) linked .pdf files, 2) web content, and 3) audio recordings.

Getting Started

Any literacy-linked experience from your life is fodder for a literacy narrative. For example:

  • Do you remember learning to cook or bake from a recipe card? Did someone in your life teach you to assemble ingredients and appropriate measuring implements? Did you ever knead bread, reading through your fingers the texture of the dough?
  • What was your favorite book when you were growing up? Was there a character you identified with? Was it Hermione?
  • Or did you prefer reading the comics section of the newspaper with a parent or a sibling, guffawing when a favorite character landed once again in one of their usual sticky situations?
  • Did you hate playing Scrabble and other word games with your aunt because she always beat you? Or was Risk your go-to game? What did the fruits of global domination taste like? What did games of any sort teach you about group dynamics or communication?
  • Did you like drawing flowers with acrylic paint at the kitchen table, sometimes spilling on the table cloth even though you have been told over and over that you needed to put something under your paper?
  • Do you remember the first time you tried to deliver an oral presentation in middle school, and nobody acted like they cared?
  • What was your favorite joke in fifth grade? Were you a knock-knock joke teller like your grandpa, or did you prefer more sophisticated jokes like Tom Swifties, A Book Never Written jokes, or other forms of humor taken from the Highlights  magazine?
  • Did you prefer to  Zoobooks or National Geographic ? Did you read for the photos or the articles?
  • Do you really think  Citizen Kane is the great example of American cinema? What would you replace it with? How have all of the movies based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels changed your life?
  •  What was your first word? How has that word come to define everything about who you are as a person? (Note: If the word was ma-ma or  da-da , I would like to remind you that your parents do not define you.)

If you need other ideas for brainstorming, click here .

Be specific with that first story. It may come first in your narrative or it might come later, but having an interesting and specific story to build around will help you construct the story of your literacy journey.

Once you identify that key story, start to identify the common threads or patterns in your story and then find a way to connect them to what you do as a consultant in your center.

If you have questions about getting started on your literacy narrative or how to contribute to the archive, email the Naugle CommLab ([email protected]) or Jeff Howard ([email protected]).

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The world of fiction writing can be split into two categories: literary fiction vs. genre fiction. Literary fiction (lit fic) generally describes work that’s character-driven and realistic, whereas genre fiction generally describes work that’s plot-driven and based on specific tropes.

That said, these kinds of reductive definitions are unfair to both genres. Literary fiction can absolutely be unrealistic, trope-y, and plot-heavy, and genre fiction can certainly include well-developed characters in real-world settings.

Part of the issue with these definitions is that literary fiction vs. genre fiction describes a binary. Sure, every piece of fiction can be categorized in one of two ways, but there’s a wide variety of fiction out there, and very little of it falls neatly in a particular box. If our human experiences are widely variegated, our fiction should be, too.

So, let’s break down this binary a bit further. What are the elements of literary fiction vs. genre fiction, how can we better define these categories, and what elements can you apply in your own fiction writing?

Along the way, we’ll take a look at some literary fiction examples, the different types of fiction genres, and some writing tips for each group. But first, let’s dissect the differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction. (They’re not as different as you might think!)

Before we describe these two categories, it’s important to note their origins. The distinction between literary fiction vs. genre fiction is recent: book publishers had no need to make these categories until the 20th century, when genre labels became a marketing tool for mass publication.

For example, many consider Edgar Allan Poe to be the first modern mystery writer, as his 1841 story “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ” was one of the first detective stories. But when he published this story, it was just that—a story. Terms like “mystery,” “thriller,” or “detective” wouldn’t start describing literature until the 1900s, particularly when these genre tags helped distinguish and market new works.

Nonetheless, literary fiction and genre fiction help describe today’s literary landscape. So, what do they mean?

Literary Fiction Definition

In general, literary fiction describes work that aims to resemble real life. (Of course, genre fiction can do this too, but we’ll get there in a moment.)

Literary fiction aims to resemble real life.

In order to transcribe real life, lit fic authors rely on the use of realistic characters , real-life settings , and complex themes , as well as the use of literary devices and experimental writing techniques.

Now, if you ask 100 different writers about what makes literary fiction “literary,” you could easily get 100 different answers. You might hear that, opposed to genre fiction, lit fic is:

  • Character-driven (instead of plot driven).
  • Complex and thematic.
  • Based on real-life situations.
  • Focused on life lessons and deeper meanings.

These distinctions are all well and good—except, genre fiction can be those things, too. Additionally, some examples of lit fic involve scenarios that would never happen in real life. For example, time travel and visions of the future occur in Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five , but the novel is distinctly literary in its focus on war.

Perhaps the best way to think about literary fiction is that it’s uncategorizable . Unlike genre fiction, which can be broken down even further into different types of fiction genres, lit fic doesn’t fall neatly into any of the genre boxes. Some literary fiction examples include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction can’t be subcategorized; it doesn’t break down further into genres.

Genre fiction, by contrast, provides us with neat categories that we can assign to different literary works. Let’s take a closer look at some of those categories.

Genre Fiction Definition

The primary feature of genre fiction is that it follows certain formulas and tropes. There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

So, genre fiction is any piece of literature that follows a certain formula to advance the story. It’s important for genre writers to immerse themselves in the genre they’re writing, because even if they don’t want to follow a precise formula, they need to know how to break the rules . We’ll take a look at some of those conventions when we explore the types of fiction genres.

If literary fiction started borrowing from genre tropes, it would then become genre fiction. However, both categories can share similar themes and ideas, without being in the same camp.

Take, for example, the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita falls firmly in the category of lit fic, even though the novel centers around love, lust, and relationships.

If Lolita is about love, then why is it not considered a romance novel, which falls under genre fiction? Because Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s tropes. For starters, the novel is about a professor (Humbert Humbert) who falls in love with the adolescent Dolores, makes Dolores his step-daughter, and then molests her. Thankfully, you don’t see that often in romance novels.

More to the point, Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s conventions. There’s no exciting first encounter—no meet cute, no chance interaction, no love at first sight (though there is lust at first sight).

Neither does anything complicate the relationship between Humbert and Dolores—there’s no relationship to be had. The novel charts the power imbalance between a middle aged man and a girl who’s barely old enough to understand consent, much less old enough to enforce it. Romance genre conventions—like love triangles or meeting at the wrong time—simply don’t apply. Yes, many plot points do make it harder for Humbert to pursue Dolores, but those plot points aren’t conventions of the romance genre.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction: A Summary

To summarize, each category abides by the following definitions:

Literary Fiction : Fiction that cannot be categorized by any specific genre conventions, and which seeks to describe real-life reactions to complex events using well-developed characters, themes, literary devices, and experimentations in prose.

Genre Fiction : Fiction that follows specific genre conventions, using tropes, structures, plot points, and archetypes to tell a story.

Additionally, literary fiction may borrow from certain genre tropes, but never enough to fall into a specific genre camp. Genre fiction can also have complex characters, themes, and literary devices, and it can certainly reproduce real life situations, as long as it also follows genre conventions.

The differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction have been mapped out below.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

More About Literary Fiction

Without the use of genre conventions, lit fic writers often struggle to tell a complete, compelling story. So, how do they do it?

Let’s take a look at some contemporary literary fiction books. We’ll briefly explore each example, taking a look at its themes and what makes the work “literary”.

Literary Fiction Books

All of the literary fiction examples below were published in the 21st century, to reflect the type of work that contemporary novelists write.

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows three generations of a Korean family that moves to Japan, during and after Japan’s occupation of Korea. The novel examines this family’s culture shock, their experiences with oppression and poverty, the enduring legacy of occupation.

Core Themes

The core theme of Pachinko is family: the value of family, the struggle to protect it, and the lengths one will go to make their family survive. These struggles are magnified in their juxtaposition to colonization, the other core theme of this novel. How did the Japanese occupation permanently affect the lives of Koreans?

What Makes This “Literary”?

Pachinko attempts to tell realistic stories, based on the lived experiences of many Korean families that endured Japan’s occupation. Additionally, the novel doesn’t follow a specific formula or set of plot points. Pachinko is organized in three parts, with each part focusing on the next generation of the same family, as well as their reaction to a different global event.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore follows two separate, yet metaphysically intertwined narratives. One story is about Kafka, a 15-year old boy who runs away from home after (unwittingly) murdering his father. In search of his lost mother and sister, Kafka ends up living in a library, where he meets the intelligent Oshima and begins his journey of healing.

The other narrative follows Nakata, an old man who became intellectually disabled in his youth following a mysterious accident. Nakata lost his ability to read and think abstractly, but he gained an ability to talk to cats. Nakata rescues a cat, and in doing so, begins his own path, which involves hitchhiking with a random truck driver and assassinating a cat killer.

On a metaphysical realm, Nakata’s actions are essential for Kafka to complete his own journey of spiritual healing. Though they never meet in person, their fates intertwine through spiritual means.

A recurring theme in Kafka on the Shore is the communicative power of music, which accompanies both Kafka and Nakata on their journeys. Additionally, questions of self-reliance, dreams versus reality, Shintoism, and the power of fate permeate the novel.

Murakami borrows from many different genres, including magical realism, absurdism, and fantasy. Yet the novel never leans too far into one genre. By combining these elements with his own brand of wit, mundanity, pop culture, spiritualism, and sexuality, Murakami creates an interconnected narrative about two equally unique protagonists. While Kafka on the Shore’s plot points are baffling and mysterious, it is the protagonists’ spiritual journeys which the novel focuses on.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five individuals before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War. The short-lived state of Biafra forces each character to make impossible decisions. A village boy is forcibly conscripted in the army; a university professor follows a dark path of alcoholism; the daughter of a war profiteer becomes the runner of a refugee camp, and her twin sister adopts her husband’s child, who was born out of wedlock. Finally, a British writer becomes obsessed with telling Biafra’s story, only to realize it isn’t his story to tell.

War, and everything about war, colors this novel’s thematic landscape. The novel dwells on the relationship between power and the people, especially since all of Biafra’s supporters—including its powerful supporters—are squashed under occupation. War also makes the novel’s characters contend with ideas of Socialism, Tribalism, Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Capitalism, among others. Other themes of this novel include family, power & corruption, and survival.

Although Half of a Yellow Sun centers around war, it’s not a “war story”. The novel is wholly unconcerned with war’s genre conventions, dwelling little on things like battle strategies or building suspense. Rather, the novel focuses on the human impact of war. The Nigerian Civil War displaces each main character, forcing them to confront awful truths and make heart-wrenching decisions as a result. Half of a Yellow Sun concerns itself with the consequences of war and political strife, especially given the ideal nature of the Biafran nation.

More About Genre Fiction

In many ways, genre fiction is no easier to summarize than literary fiction. Each genre has its own rules, tropes , character types, plot structures, and goals.

Mystery novels, for example, should present an uncrackable whodunnit that builds suspense and intrigue, whereas Romance novels should create tension between two characters who are meant for each other, but keep encountering setbacks in their relationship. Since each novel has different goals, they take drastically different paths to achieve those goals.

Below, we’ve summarized the rules, tropes, and goals for 8 popular fiction genres. Links and further readings are provided for writers who want to dive deeper into a specific type of genre fiction.

Types of Fiction Genres

Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi, explores fictional societies that are shaped by new and different technologies. Aliens might visit Earth, wars might take place across galaxies, humans might have bionic arms, or scientists might discover human immortality. The goal of most Sci-Fi is to explore man’s relationship to technology, as well as technology’s relationship to society, power, and reality.

Many of the technological innovations in Sci-Fi can double as themes. For example, the gene-editing technology in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake represents man’s hubris in trying to command nature, the result of which is a dystopian society that hastens its own apocalypse.

Prominent Science Fiction writers include Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Ted Chiang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler. Here’s a list of common tropes in Science Fiction .

Thriller novels attempt to tell engaging, suspenseful stories, often based on a complex protagonist undergoing a Hero’s Journey . A spy might chase down an international assassin, a boy might fake his own death, or a lawyer might have to prove she’s been framed for murder. In thriller novels, the protagonist faces a journey that’s long, dark, and arduous.

Thrillers often blend into other types of fiction genres. It’s common for a thriller to also be categorized as mystery, Sci-Fi, or horror, and even some romance thrillers exist. While the best thrillers have complicated protagonists, authors of thriller novels prioritize making each plot point juicy, compelling, and suspenseful.

Prominent thriller novelists include John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Dean Koontz, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Under. This article explains the key elements of thrillers .

The mystery genre typically revolves around murder. (If not murder, then some other high-profile and complicated crime.) Usually told from the perspective of a detective or medical examiner, mystery novels present a host of clues, suspects, and possibilities—including red herrings and misleading info.

Because mystery revolves around crime, many novels delve deep into their characters’ psyches. A mystery novel might string you along with clues and plot points, but it’s the complicated characters and their unknown desires that make a mystery juicy.

Prominent mystery novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Walter Mosley, Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Horowitz, and Louise Penny. Here are some considerations for writing mystery novels , and here are 5 mistakes to avoid when writing mystery .

Ah, l’amour. Romance novels follow the complicated relationships of lovers who, despite everything, are meant to be together. As they explore their relationship, each lover must embark on their own journey of growth and self-discovery.

The relationships in romance novels are never simple, but always satisfying. Lovers often meet under unique circumstances, they may be forbidden from loving each other, and they always mess things up a few times before they get it right. Alongside thriller, romance is often the bestselling genre, though it has its humble roots in the Gothic fiction of the 19th century.

Prominent romance novelists include Carolyn Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Catherine Bybee, Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, and Julia Quinn. Here’s a list of common tropes in the romance genre .

Fantasy novels require tons of worldbuilding and imagination. Wizards might go to battle, a man might chase after a unicorn, men and Gods might go to war with each other, or a hero might go on a mystical quest. What is impossible in real life is quotidian in fantasy.

Many works of fantasy borrow from mythology, folklore, and urban legend. Like Sci-Fi, many of the magical elements in fantasy novels can double as symbols or themes. The line between Sci-Fi and fantasy is often unclear: for example, an alien invasion is categorized as Sci-Fi, but the journey to defeat those aliens can easily resemble a fantasy novel.

Prominent fantasy novelists include J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Andre Norton, Rick Riordan, C. S. Lewis, Zen Cho, and Erin Morgenstern. Here are some tropes in the fantasy genre , as well as our exploration of urban fantasy .

Magical Realism

Magical Realism blends the fantastical with the everyday. There won’t be grandwizards, alternate universes, or potions with unicorn tears, but there might be a man whose head is tied to his body, or a woman who cries tears of fabric.

In other words, fantasy slips into everyday life, but the characters don’t have magic at their disposal—they react as only mortals know how to react to magic. Because it is a relatively young genre, and because it often focuses on characters instead of plot points, magical realism is often seen as a more “literary” genre of genre fiction. Magical realism has its roots in the storytelling of Central and South American novelists.

Prominent authors of magical realism include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carmen Maria Machado, Haruki Murakami, Samanta Schweblin, Jorge Louis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Learn more about magical realism here .

Horror writers are masters of invoking fear in the reader. Through a combination of tone , atmosphere, plotting, the introduction of ambiguous (and unambiguous) threats, and the author’s own imagination, horror novels push their characters to the brink of survival.

Most horror novels involve supernatural elements, including monsters, ghosts, god-like figures, satanic rituals, or Sci-Fi creatures. Sometimes the protagonists are armed and ready, but usually, the protagonists are trapped and trying to escape some unfathomable danger.

Prominents horror writers include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Ray Bradbury. Here are some common tropes for horror writers .

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” —Madeleine L’Engle

Children’s fiction is technically its own category of fiction, but the genre does have its own tropes and conventions. With many similarities to the fable, children’s fiction teaches important life lessons through the journeys of memorable characters, who are often the same age as the novel’s intended reader.

Writing for children is much harder than commonly believed. Whether you’re writing a picture book or a YA novel, you have to balance your book’s core themes and ideas with the reading level of your audience—without “talking down to” the reader.

Prominent children’s writers include A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Anne Fine, and Peggy Parish. Here are 10 tips for picture book writers , and here is advice for YA novelists .

Explore Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction at Writers.com

With so many works being published in both literary fiction and genre fiction, it helps to have people read your work before you submit it somewhere . That’s what Writers.com is here for. From our upcoming fiction courses to our Facebook group , we help writers of all stripes master the conventions of their genre.

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Sean Glatch

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Great example using Lolita for why the book doesn’t fall under the ‘romance’ category (due to the way it does not use romance tropes – indeed, it is almost an ‘anti-romance’). There’s a great line where Nabokov was asked about its inspirations and he said he read a story about a chimpanzee that was taught to paint and it’s great masterwork turned out to be a painting of the bars of its cage (perhaps he was implying that his protagonist similarly represents the limits of his own awareness, since he doesn’t seem able to empathize with or consider Lolita’s subjective experience).

I wasn’t sure about the definition of literary fiction (as being that which resembles real life), since so much literary fiction is surreal (e.g. Kafka) or upends realist modes (e.g. when an author uses second person to make the reader an active participant in the story, e.g. Italo Calvino in ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’). So I’m curious about that definition.

Thank you for mentioning Now Novel, too.

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Hi Jordan, thanks for your comment!

You make a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve emended our definition to say that literary fiction describes “real-life reactions to complex events.” When magic and sci-fi are out of the question, what can people do in their limited power against terrible things–like, say, waking up as a bug?

As for Calvino’s experimentations with prose and POV, it’s hard to summarize that into any meaningful definition–he is, in several ways, his own category. That said, I think his ability to cast the reader as the protagonist helps build the type of empathy that lit fic is best suited for, and experimentations in prose are one of the many tools at the disposal of both literary and genre novelists.

Nabokov’s anecdote about the chimpanzee fascinates me–I haven’t heard that story, but it reveals so much about Nabokov’s psyche. His empathy for the chimpanzee in a cage is striking.

I loved Now Novel’s advice for writing YA! Thanks for sharing it, and thanks again for your comment!

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I’m curious as to why Margaret Atwood is categorized as a Sci-Fi novelist. I consider Atwood’s work to be literature, not formulaic and plot driven. Romance novels have historically been easy to categorize–they are basically fluff pieces, good for escaping the everyday and losing oneself in something safe and predictable. But what is the modern romance fiction? Is it Danielle Steele, or Colleen Hoover? I’m struggling to understand the difference between the NY Times Bestseller list, and the NY Times Recommended books list. Two lists that to a casual reader could seem interchangeable, but that serious readers understand differently. Most bestsellers (particularly trade paperback editions) are not considered “literature,” but the novels that are recommended by the NY times, or that are nominated, and sometimes receive, awards such as the National Book Award or the Nobel Prize in Literature. Would you consider books like ones by Colleen Hoover or Lucy Score genre fiction, or literary fiction? Full disclosure: I have not read anything by either of those authors—the characters and plots feel super formulaic and the writing isn’t that good (in my opinion).

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This feels like it will be a great resource for the explanations I do not get in class. I look forward to spending time on this site.

[…] are lots of stereotypes associated with writing commercial genre fiction versus writing literary fiction. But even the most […]

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Thank you! While at the library (my “third place”) a few years ago, a fellow patron and I were discussing books to recommend. He wanted literature. The way he spoke, literature was ONLY great works of the past, not recent “books”. So thank you for clarifying the difference.

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Digital literacy expert explains differences between reading in print and online

by Amy Wolf, University of Delaware

Digital literacy expert explains differences between reading in print and online

Rachel Karchmer-Klein, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware, co-designed a research study where a group of high-achieving eighth graders were asked to engage with a digital narrative text. The story incorporated written words, sound, static images and video animations. The students quickly figured out they had to interact with it similarly to playing a video game in order to keep the story moving along.

When students were asked questions about the narrative, Karchmer-Klein and her colleague found that the students were focused so much on the written words that they missed a lot of the details.

"The details of the story and the fun and really cool stuff that came out in the narrative text were told through the sounds and the pictures," said Karchmer-Klein, who teaches courses in literacy and educational technology at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels in CEHD's School of Education. "They engaged with it, but because they were focusing on the words that were presented in the digital texts, they missed a lot of details."

It comes as no surprise that the students were so focused on the written words, Karchmer-Klein said, since that was what they've been taught to do since kindergarten.

"Overall, readers privilege the written word," she said. "One reason is because K-12 schooling spends most of its instructional time teaching kids to read and write written language. We assume that because kids today are growing up with digital devices that they can figure out how to communicate effectively with them. We don't spend time teaching other modalities like how to make meaning from audio, sound and moving images. Yet, there is a robust line of research indicating the need for this instruction. So just like we teach phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency, we need to teach these reading skills beginning in kindergarten."

Karchmer-Klein said there are four unique characteristics of digital texts—the medium we use to communicate over the internet—we should teach students. The first is that digital texts are nonlinear. With a printed book (in the English language), the reader reads left to right, top to bottom. But when engaging with a digital text, reading tends to be nonlinear and many times non-sequential—the reader does not have to go through the text in a sequential manner to make sense of the text.

A second characteristic is that while a physical book is static—once printed, it can't be changed—but a digital text is malleable. Karchmer-Klein informs students that when doing research online, a source they find can be gone or altered within a day, or even within minutes.

Technology also allows students to connect with anyone in the world.

"As soon as I, as the teacher, am allowing my students to get onto the internet, for example, I am opening a door to resources that I can't necessarily constrain," Karchmer-Klein said. "Whereas when I give a traditionally printed textbook to my class, I know what is in it and it can't be modified."

The final difference is multimodality—the use of multiple modes. Modes are signs or symbols, and their meaning comes from social and cultural uses and interpretations. Digital text consists of multiple modes pieced together. Examples are live or recorded speech, still or moving images, music, ambient sounds and tactility through touch screens. When these modes are combined with written language into one digital text, they require a high level of cognitive flexibility, meaning readers must navigate among and between modes to understand the content and progress forward in the text.

Texts, whether they be narrative or informational, typically have written language. Early literacy education tends to focus on the written word, the alphabet and phonemic awareness.

"What we don't do is spend a lot of time talking about all of these other modalities that can actually come into play and hold the cognitive load of meaning," Karchmer-Klein said. "So sure, we use picture books and we teach kids that pictures can hold meaning, especially when kids are really young, but that kind of all goes away as kids get older and we really focus on the words, which are important. But if you look at digital texts, there are a lot of other modalities that become not just supplemental, not just as important as the written word, but sometimes even more important."

Some studies have shown that when people read on-screen, they don't understand what they've read as well as when they read in print. But Karchmer-Klein said there are many variables that can affect one's comprehension when reading online—such as the age of a digital device and the reader's comfort level using it—and that reading strategies are much more important than the tool itself.

"Say I have a book and I also have a website, and I want you to use the strategy of close reading. That strategy is an evidence-based strategy. It's been systematically studied, and it's been proven to be a useful strategy with kids," she said. "So the tool—whether it be I'm using this passage that is traditionally printed or I'm using it on technology—doesn't matter. What matters is that I'm using an evidence-based strategy. The bottom line is it's the strategy. It's not the tool."

The technology isn't going anywhere, and students need to learn how to use it responsibly, Karchmer-Klein said. Much like many educators in the '90s and early 2000s were hesitant to bring the internet into classrooms, the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in educational settings is now a hot topic.

"With the internet, the argument was, 'This isn't going away. We've got to figure out how to use it,'" Karchmer-Klein said. "The same thing is happening now with AI, which is why we have to figure this out, because these kids are going to have to know how to use it for the workplace. The best thing that we can do is not shy away from the things that we have today and, instead, get grounded in what we know."

The biggest issue with technology, Karchmer-Klein said, is that people don't know how to critically analyze information—a problem that is only getting worse with the expansion of generative AI.

Most high school and college students get their news from social media sites like Instagram and TikTok, but these students don't understand the algorithms that these sites and search engines use—and they're often unable to determine what's misinformation.

"Nobody teaches you how to use social media. We just assume that people know how to use it. There's a lot of ugly stuff that happens there, and that's why we have so many people who are misinformed," she said. "Teaching critical thinking skills, beginning in kindergarten and first grade, is so important, because all these skills continue to build up more and more and more and more to the higher grades."

When schools and workplaces went virtual at the start of the pandemic, it became especially clear that most people didn't know how to use technology, Karchmer-Klein said, also noting that a good thing that came from the pandemic was that access to technology became less of an issue.

Karchmer-Klein said "there's no deep reading on the internet," but a main reason for that is that students aren't taught how to read online.

"We've all had instructions on how to read a book, but we haven't had instructions on how to read online," she said. "So it's hard to compare these things when you've been instructed how to do one thing, but not on the other."

Students need to learn that meaning can come from pictures, graphics, sounds—things other than words. They need to know that reading online is not always left to right, top to bottom—like it is in a traditionally printed text. Students need to learn that they might need to click on a link for more information and then come back to finish reading the original text.

That said, parents and educators certainly shouldn't toss all the hard copy books.

"There needs to be a balance," Karchmer-Klein said. "I don't think they should be on a computer all day long. I think that's horrible, too. But I do think it should be enough that they're exposed to technology, just like they should be exposed to books. I love books. I would hate it if my kid didn't have a book in front of them. I think there needs to be a balance. I think that's the smart thing to do."

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